Evidence-based principles for learning and teaching STEM—part one

Here are the best-established principles from learning research that every STEM teacher should know about.

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By Tina Overton, Monash University, and Liz Johnson, Deakin University

In teaching there have been enormous efforts made to improve the quality of learning and the student experience in science disciplines across Australia. However, not all these developments and innovations are based on research evidence; academics may have minimal exposure to education research evidence through no fault of their own, and even the most conscientious may base their practice on anecdotes, instincts or personal prejudices. By contrast, in research, academics consult the published literature in their field, build on the work of others, and take research evidence into account when designing their own research programs. It is a good example of how the multiple roles performed by academics and researchers — which can be intimately related and inform each other — are often disconnected. 

Evidence-based understanding of how students learn should underpin effective learning and assessment design. In this two-part series, we will describe some of the best-established principles derived from learning research that should inform the design of STEM courses. While like all research they remain contestable, they are widely accepted and knowledgeable teachers should know about them. 

1. Avoid cognitive overload

The Challenge

Learners have limited capacity to absorb and use new information

The Research

Cognitive load theory has its roots in early cognitive psychology. In 1956 George Miller suggested that humans were able to process seven plus or minus two pieces of information, or ‘chunks’, in their short-term memory. Australian researcher John Sweller (1988) elaborated on Miller’s work to develop cognitive load theory and described how instructional design can be used to ameliorate the effects of cognitive overload which occurs when the working memory is overloaded. 

Cognitive load has three components (Sweller et. al., 1998). Intrinsic load is associated with the inherent difficulty of the material being studied. There is little the teacher can do about intrinsic cognitive load but schema can be used to break down or organise the knowledge as learners become more expert. Extraneous load is associated with the way material is presented to the learner and is in the control of the teacher. For example, teachers can avoid using many words to describe a technical process when a picture would to it more effectively, or avoid introducing irrelevant information into a problem.

Applying the theory

Careful design of learning experiences can make the most of learning capacity:

  • help students to link material into concepts or processes (create schema)
  • use visual cues and pictures to simplify the information (reduce extraneous load)
  • model and develop expert thinking with lots of practice using application of concepts or linked processes (practice using schema)
  • scaffold student learning
  • avoid a deluge of facts.

2. Be careful what you measure

The Challenge

Assessing student learning needs to consider inherent limitations of the task

The Research

The practical effects of cognitive load theory in science education have been well reported. In their 1986 paper, Johnstone and El Banna demonstrated how success in problem solving in chemistry and physics undergraduates dropped catastrophically once the number of steps in the problem exceeded seven and the students’ working memory became overloaded. Johnstone also demonstrated that students’ working memory capacity, which can be readily measured with a simple paper and pen test (Pascual-Leone, 1974), correlated with their scores in solving these problems. So teachers should be clear about what they are measuring; inherent ability or working memory capacity. Providing undergraduates with tasks that exceed their cognitive load dooms them to fail, regardless of their ability.

Applying the theory

Design assessment to:

  • measure student learning, that is, what the student knows and is able to do
  • align assessment to the learning activities used to prepare for it
  • avoid assessment tasks that are strongly time-limited or measure volume of recall (i.e. tasks that measure time-management or cognitive load rather than learning).

3. Ensure students are prepared for laboratory and field

The Challenge

Challenging learning environments, such as laboratories, require a lot of new thinking for students

The Research

Teaching laboratories are environments that place a great demand on students in terms of their working memory and cognitive load. Students are in a new environment, using unfamiliar equipment, following unfamiliar procedures, and are expected to be able to link the activity to material learned in lectures, which may or not be embedded in their long-term memory. The effect of cognitive overload in the undergraduate laboratories has been investigated in two elegant studies, one in chemistry and one in physics (Johnstone et. al.; 1994, 1998).

The studies showed that student motivation, performance and retention of knowledge increased if the cognitive load was reduced. This was achieved by making the aims of the activity very clear, making sure that students had received relevant skills training before the activity and, crucially, that they had completed a pre-laboratory activity designed to ensure they knew what they were going to do and why before they entered the laboratory. Johnstone demonstrated stunning improvements in motivation, grades and retention of knowledge. The case for pre-laboratory activities was definitively made over 20 years ago and yet their use is still not widespread across the university sector.

Applying the research

Prepare students to work in challenging environments, such as labs and fieldwork, so they can make best use of the learning experience:

  • use pre-lab exercises for preparation
  • scaffold learning in the laboratory and the field to build expertise beforehand.

4. Prepare students to learn in lectures

The Challenge

Lectures can introduce lots of bewildering new information that is lost on students

The Research

Cognisance of cognitive load can also help in the lecture environment. Sirhan et.al. in 1999 described a study in which they reduced the number of lectures and replaced them with out of class preparatory reading. This led to improved exam results and a loss of correlation between grades and previous educational background. A similar study was carried out in Australia with bioscience students (Burke da Silver & Hunter, 2009) with remarkably similar outcomes. In this case, the study involved students with and without the prerequisite qualification. Introduction of preparatory reading reduced the failure rate for all students and the difference between the two cohorts was eliminated.

Applying the research

Structure lecture programs to:

  • include preparatory exercises that help students to familiarise themselves with language and main concepts
  • understand the background of students to assist those with less preparation


Extract from report prepared for the Australian Council of Deans of Science.

Tina Overton

Professor, Monash University